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Caraviello: In the Chase, good isn't always good enough

September 25, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

LOUDON, N.H. -- Despite top-five finish, Gordon can't help but be disappointed in Loudon result

Rick Hendrick walked down pit road, put an arm around Jeff Gordon, and amid the din of the public address system and the cheering fans in the grandstand, leaned in close to give his veteran driver what were certainly some words of encouragement. It was a bittersweet day at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the four-time champion, who managed the kind of top-five finish that every Chase participant wants out of a playoff race, but left the Granite State knowing that he left a little more out there on the 1-mile track -- and at this point in the season, those little bits can hurt.

Gordon was the biggest mover in Sunday's second Chase event, rebounding from his miserable result a week ago outside Chicago to finish fourth and jump six positions in the standings. And yet, in the immediate aftermath, he seemed in no mood to celebrate. There had been a hangup while refueling during the No. 24 team's final pit stop, and a driver who led a race-high 78 laps had to back down off the accelerator in the end. No question, it could have been worse. But perhaps no driver knows better than Gordon that even good results may not be enough under a championship format that often demands greatness.

"We did what we had to do. You've got to listen to what Alan's telling you, and I knew the situation was as frustrating for him as it was for me."

--JEFF GORDON

"Obviously, with the way Chicago went for us," said Gordon, who finished 24th on Monday after running out of fuel, "we need to be spectacular right now if we're going to make the gains we need to make in this championship."

They were for much of Sunday, looking like the class of the field in a race where a number of Chase participants had trouble. In yet another event that stretched fuel-mileage calculations to the limit, Gordon ran out of gas before his penultimate stop and was forced to give up the lead and coast to the pits. Since it happened at the tail end of a green-flag pit cycle, Gordon was able to minimize the damage and stay near the front -- until crew chief Alan Gustafson came over the radio on lap 266 of the 300-lap event and asked his driver to use his brakes as little as possible in an effort to save fuel.

So instead of battling Clint Bowyer and eventual race winner Tony Stewart for the lead, Gordon was forced to start giving up spots. He let Greg Biffle go by. He let Brad Keselowski go by. He let Mark Martin go by, although the No. 5 car eventually gave back the position when it ducked into the pits. The mantra over the radio was the same, over and over -- back it up, back it up, back it up. Gordon slid as far back as sixth before finishing fourth, a fine result by most measures, but tinged with a little emptiness for a driver who had perhaps the best car in the race.

"It's a sickening feeling, you know?" said Gordon, now fifth in points, 23 behind new leader Stewart. "You're running a pace, really. I mean, I was letting off [the accelerator] at the start/finish line. It's not easy to do, I'm telling you. It's hard to run that pace -- not just because you're letting guys go by you, but the car doesn't handle that good when you let off that early. So yeah, that was tough and frustrating. But we did what we had to do. You've got to listen to what Alan's telling you, and I knew the situation was as frustrating for him as it was for me."

No question. Gustafson said after the race he wasn't completely certain what had happened on the last pit stop -- he had yet to review the tape -- but it appeared that when the fuel man exchanged the empty first gas can for the full second one, the latter somehow got hung up in his protective apron. The No. 24 team made a very long pit stop, trying to get as much gas in the car as possible in order to get it to the end, but the slight delay was costly. Rather than turning Gordon loose and watching him vie for the victory, Gustafson was forced to tell his driver to slow it down and just get to the end.

"You've just got to clean it up," the crew chief said. "We've just got to clean it up. We've got a team that can win races and win the championship. We've just got to clean it up, be sharp. You take the positives out of every weekend. Chicago was about as bad as it can get, and you come in here 11th and have a good finish and we come out of here fifth. You've just got to keep chipping away at them. They're not that far out on us. We'll get it."

In New Hampshire, Gordon certainly had the car. "I don't know if [Bowyer] and [Stewart] could have ran with him," said Biffle, who wound up third. As it was, it was a solid rebound for a driver who needed one after Monday's dry-gas-tank disappointment in the Chase opener. But when a fourth-place finish is viewed as solace, you know a team was out for more. Watching Gordon lead so many laps Sunday -- he paced 77 of 79 circuits at one point late in the race -- it's easy to see why.

"It was tough. We gave it away, obviously, having the lead and it ending green like that," Gustafson said. "We could have won the race going away. But we survived. We just have to look at the big picture there, and survive."

"You can say we absolutely gave it away, but I think we did," Gordon added. "... I was conserving fuel there on that whole last run. I've got to get to the bottom of it. I think we had a problem getting the fuel into the car. And then when we ran out, that was the first mistake that was made. That was unfortunate. But we've got to get top-fives when we have days like that, and I'm glad we did."

It seems such a negligible mathematical difference, the gap between first and fourth under a championship system that awards only one point per finishing position. But Gordon knows from experience the discrepancy between good and not good enough. He lived it during his spectacular 2007 season, when he and Jimmie Johnson dueled at such at a high level over the final 10 races that a fifth-place finish felt like a disaster. Gordon was awesome that year, the best he had been between his double-digit victory campaigns of the late 1990s and now, when he has three wins and opened the Chase as a favorite. But Johnson was just that much better when it counted and took home the Sprint Cup trophy as a result.

So yes, feeling the blood boil a little after a fourth-place finish is perfectly understandable, particularly given the time of the season, particularly given what the No. 24 car was capable of when it had fuel in the tank, particularly given that Gordon is suddenly chasing a driver with two consecutive Chase victories. This is a sport where every point and every little thing matters, considering that a loose lug nut perhaps cost Biffle the championship in 2005, considering that an unchecked sway bar joint took Kyle Busch out of the running in 2008, considering that a busted axle cap was the beginning of the end for Stewart the following year.

Could a gas man's apron join that dubious collection? Given the tightrope-thin margins in play during the Chase, it's certainly possible. "That just shows you," Gordon said, "how important every last detail is."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.